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Tennessee-Vandy game features sibling rivalry

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 | 6:35 p.m. CST; updated 8:00 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Vanderbilt basketball strength and conditioning coach Garry Christopher works with basketball players during a workout in Nashville, Tenn., on June 27. The in-state rivalry between Tennessee and Vanderbilt now includes a sibling rivalry. The strength coaches at the respective programs are brothers: Nicodemus Christopher at Tennessee and Garry Christopher at Vanderbilt. They'll reunite Wednesday with plenty of family members in the Memorial Gym stands.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Amid all the history and emotion that accompany a Tennessee-Vanderbilt game, these in-state foes now have a real sibling rivalry.

Vanderbilt hired Garry Christopher, 28, as strength and conditioning coach for the basketball team last summer, a year after his younger brother Nicodemus Christopher took over the same position at Tennessee. They've been anticipating Wednesday's matchup between Tennessee (14-7, 5-3 SEC) and Vanderbilt (12-8, 4-4) ever since.

"You could say it's been double-circled back since July 1, absolutely," Garry Christopher said.

Nicodemus Christopher, who is a year younger than his brother, says their parents have taken different sides in this rivalry, and both are making the trip from Jacksonville, Texas, to Nashville. Three of the Christophers' five sisters are also expected in the stands of Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym, one making the trip from San Diego.

"My mother says she bleeds orange," Nicodemus Christopher said. "And my dad says he's all about the black-and-gold."

These brothers grew up competing against each other everywhere from the dinner table to the classroom. They still talk to each other or exchange text messages almost every day.

"To this day, anyone who knows us knows if Garry was to walk in this room, about 10 to 15 minutes from now we'd probably be competing in something," Nicodemus Christopher said.

The Christopher brothers took similar, indirect routes to their current occupations.

Both graduated from Baylor University, but they were initially in different fields. Garry Christopher was a pre-med student at Baylor after playing Division III college basketball for one season at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. Nicodemus was pursuing a career in physical therapy.

The elder Christopher eventually decided he didn't want to leave athletics completely behind, so he switched his major to health and human performance with the intent of becoming a strength coach. The younger brother eventually followed suit, chosing the same major.

Garry Christopher said their father was into competitive weightlifting.

"I could see it every day," he said. "It's amazing when you're 7 years old and you're hanging on your dad's big old biceps and you're swinging from it. You get fascinated from those things at a young age. Growing up playing ball and everything, we had a general attraction to the weight room."

Nicodemus Christopher was a speed and conditioning coordinator at Purdue University before Tennessee hired him in May 2012. When he left Purdue, his brother replaced him. After a year at Purdue, Garry Christopher got the job at Vanderbilt.

Both have garnered compliments for their job performances. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin calls his Christopher brother "one of the best out there."

"He's just a guy that really studies his craft," Martin said. "It's not just about weightlifting. He's watching film, the way guys eat. He prepares for our meals for our guys on the road, home games, makes sure the guys are eating the right way on campus. ... He does a great job in preparing and getting guys ready."

Garry Christopher has a particularly tough job. Injuries and off-court issues have left Vanderbilt with seven healthy scholarship players. It's a testament to Vanderbilt's conditioning that the Commodores have won three straight games. Dai-Jon Parker has played all 40 minutes in four consecutive games. Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom have played 40 minutes in three of their last four games.

"Honestly, without him, there's no way I could play 40 minutes," Fuller said.

Nicodemus Christopher said any discussions about their respective teams are generally restricted to what workout plans have produced good results in the weight room.

The upcoming game has stoked their competitive fires. The basketball game might not be the only matchup of the night.

"I'm trying to get him to compete with me in a footrace now," the younger Christopher said. "Now that he's getting a little bit older, I think he's slowed down a little bit. ... I can't get him to race me. I think he knows what would happen."


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